Fact versus Fiction: Mulk Raj Anand’s ‘Across the Black Waters’

In the second instalment of her three-part series on Indian colonial soldiers during the First World War, our Erasmus+ trainee Birgit Ampe discusses Mulk Raj Anand’s novel ‘Across the Black Waters’ alongside actual letters written by Indian soldiers.

Since the end of the First World War, many novels have been published describing the experiences of the soldiers who fought in the trenches. But whereas stories about the British combatants are strongly represented, those about the Indian sepoys are notably absent. One of the few novels that does take the sepoys’ experience as a subject is Across the Black Waters by Indian author Mulk Raj Anand. Published in 1939, the novel follows a young Indian boy, Lalu, as he arrives in France and is sent to fight at the front. Throughout the novel we see Lalu mature as his service progresses. His feelings and emotions are described extensively as well as those of the other sepoys.

But how far do these feelings represent the reality? In order to find out, we must look at the letters from real First World War sepoys. Even though the letters were subjected to censorship, they can provide a glimpse into the minds of the Indian soldiers. By comparing them to the novel we can establish how close the fiction of Mulk Raj Anand lies to the reality.

The majority of the letters either hint at the war or explicitly refer to it. With this in mind, one thing that is immediately apparent when regarding the letters as a whole, is that the tone of the letters changes as the war progresses. At the beginning of the war, a feeling of optimism is present and morale is high. The Indians express in their letters a will to fight and are grateful for an opportunity to show their loyalty to the Empire.

Indian soldiers in the trenches

The same ideas are described at the beginning of Mulk Raj Anand’s novel. When the Indians arrive at Marseilles they let out shouts of joy and are very excited (11). Lalu himself believes it is “thrilling to be going out on this adventure” (13). Lalu’s excitement lasts for a few chapters and does not even diminish when he has to enter the trenches, as he feels it is an honour to be fighting alongside the British Tommies (124).

However, these feelings of hope did not last. When the first battles proved to be more difficult than imagined, the sepoys began to despair. This was reflected in their letters. Morale declined and they even wrote letters home urging their family members not to enlist.

The sepoys in the novel do not write such letters but it is clear that despair has taken hold of them. When the first attack turns into a slaughter and when they are mowed down by the Germans’ superior guns, they start to realise that they should not be part of this war:

They did not know what they were fighting for or what anyone else was fighting for. And, almost from the beginning, things had gone wrong, almost from the start they had been shattered by the bombardments, flooded by rains and frozen by the cold. (178)

When the winter kicked in towards the end of 1914, the Indians’ morale declined even further. The sepoys were not used to the cold climate of France and Flanders, and the perpetual rain and snow made life in the trenches even more difficult. Throughout the novel, references to the cold are made, but they are subtly woven into the larger emotional framework. It is mentioned for example that some Sikhs froze to death overnight, or that several sepoys got frostbite (303).

When in 1915, morale reached its breaking point, it was decided to move the infantry to the Middle East. The tone of the letters of the remaining cavalry turned slowly from despair into resignation as they accepted their fate. The events in the novel only span across the year 1914, but occasionally some feelings of resignation are already present among the sepoys. They lose the joy of eating and “did not even complain about the inconvenience of changing trenches and this red-hot reception they were greeting from the enemy, as if after the hardships of the first attack they were now prepared to accept anything” (187). So although a general feeling of resignation is not yet present, some hints to it can already be found in the novel.

Besides the changing curve of emotions, the loyalty to the British Government in a context of war is worth examining. Overall, the Indians speak favourably of the Government or Sarkar in their letters. They want to show their loyalty and believe that it is their duty to fight because they have profited of the ‘salt of the Sarkar’.

In the novel, however, this image is more nuanced. Whereas the higher ranking officers keep reminding the soldiers that the Government is good and benevolent, the soldiers themselves have mixed feelings towards the Sarkar. The Government is blamed for the lack of information the sepoys receive and the fact that they have to fight in a war that is not theirs.

When they have to return to the trenches after some failed attacks, one sepoy even cries: “Oh, I won’t fight! I will not fight for this dirty Sarkar” (200). At one point, it is even hinted that there is a general “fear of the Sarkar” (266). However, when the men actually have to fight, they speak differently of the British Government. They urge each other on to go over the parapet of the trenches by saying that they should “prove true to the salt of the Sarkar” (284). This more nuanced image is very interesting and one wonders whether this could be closer to the truth since the letters by real sepoys were censored.

Indian soldiers at rest

Another aspect in the letters that is often connected to the war is religion. The sepoys often mentioned how daily religious observances were being abandoned, a concern that is also present in the novel.

A good example to illustrate this is the ‘sanctity’ of the kitchen. When the sepoys set up camp after their arrival in France, they build a makeshift kitchen and are very angry when an unsuspecting woman walks through it. Later on in the novel, when their camp has to be broken down and everything needs to be loaded into trucks, Lalu remarks:

Seeing that he himself and the other sepoys were going freely about the kitchens with their boots of cowhide skins and their leather belts, and handling food without washing their hands, he thought that if Dhanoo and Kirpu needed any more proof of the spoliation of their religion they could see it here. (70)

In the letters written by Muslim soldiers in particular, religion was mentioned in relation to Turkey. In 1914, Turkey joined the war on the side of the Germans which proved to be a difficulty for some Muslims. This is also briefly touched upon in the novel when Lalu confirms a Muslim soldier’s suspicions that the Turks have joined the war. The Muslim is horror-stricken and exclaims: “Then we have been fighting against the Khalif of Islam!” (349).

Although religion is omnipresent in the novel, the war is hardly ever described in terms of it. This was, however, the case in the letters where the war was compared to religious epics of destruction. Nevertheless, in both the letters and the novel, war is described in terms of the sepoys’ home. For example, in the novel, the sound of the artillery is compared to the drums of a marriage procession (148), and the noise of gun fire is likened to that in a cotton factory (157).

From this short comparison we can conclude that Mulk Raj Anand’s novel Across the Black Waters stayed true to the reality of the First World War sepoys. The emotions and feelings expressed in the soldiers’ letters are portrayed in a very realistic way in the novel. Even though the novel was written for an English-speaking audience, it managed to present the perspective of the colonised rather than that of the coloniser. And just as the letters gave the sepoys a voice in reality, so Across the Black Waters gave them a voice in fiction.

Birgit Ampe is an Erasmus+ trainee and visiting postgraduate student at the CSMCH. She completed her Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Ghent in Belgium. She intends to start a second Masters degree in library studies at the University of Brussels in September 2018.